October 19, 1998 | Travel Feature

Venice Off the Menu

In the off-season, Venice still has everything the savvy sybarite will ever need -- except the crowds.

     Was it the coldest January ever? Mornings were sulky, coated in icy mist. Wind slapped around every corner. Ghostly fogs softened into chilling drizzles. Even wrapped in more layers than a croissant, the two of us found riding the vaporetto on the gusty Grand Canal too deeply bone-chilling. We took to the streets of Venice, wandering aimlessly, getting lost, finding our way, discovering frozen gardens and empty churches leaning off-center. It was easy to imagine we had Venice all to ourselves. We ate like freshman linebackers and still lost eight pounds in a week with our obsessed walking, determined to make footprints on every campo, calle, ponte, riva, ramo, the tiniest dead-end alley.

     Trying to find a café for a late espresso one night, we wandered into the Piazza San Marco just as the clock thrumped twelve. I looked around the vast square and realized we were alone. Just the two of us and not another soul. I, who had loathed sly, slimy, larcenous, sneering Venice years earlier on first confrontation, a honeymoon in September, was hooked. I must return. And it must only be in winter.

     Ten years later, I doubt I'll ever have another solipsistic epiphany in San Marco. Savvy travelers and contrarians have discovered the sensuous and soulful pleasures of winter, too. You may feel you need to immerse yourself in the delicious incongruities of February's Carnevale: Louis the Sun King flashing his jeweled fingers beside market-bound moms with babies in strollers on the vaporetto. Spookily masked and expensively costumed couples posing for day-tripping hordes in front of the Accademia. Floating in a gondola to the costume ball in a candlelit palazzo -- $600 per couple. I'm glad I tripped through the madness, but once was enough.

     I much prefer the quiet time before Carnevale and the almost-quiet time after. The sun smiles benignly on our serene dead-end campo as each day my photographer mate wakes early, ranting for mist and fog, praying for a rerun of the Venice-in-the-snow that he had captured two years earlier. Sunshine and an unexpected warming in February prompt lunch crowds to fill outdoor cafés. Each morning, I find a different route to the Rialto market, discovering small shops full of castoff treasures I might have to buy or crusty lungo baguettes (to show Venetian friends who tell me the bread is just so-so). I stalk the slippery fish market studying odd sea creatures so I'll know what I'm ordering on menus written in Venetian. I eavesdrop on the grandes dames of Tutto Venezia in tiered mink and fox swing coats as they spend ten minutes chatting to buy a kilo of blood oranges, and the first precious castraure (from the tip of the artichoke stalk, unlike anything we see at Fairway). I buy mixed bitter greens and radicchio sprigs and a bread mottled with large chunks of olive that will never get home intact if we don't duck into the maze alongside the Rialto for a glass of wine and overstuffed sandwiches on soft crustless white bread at Do Spade, one of our (and Venice's) favorite stand-up wine bars.

     New York friends arrive for a long weekend and drag us off on a frenzy of Tiepolo and Titian, fabled churches, expensive espresso at the Quadri in San Marco and money-means-nothing shopping on the treacherous streets of temptations leading to Santa Stefano (where we have to ogle the carved wooden doge mannequins in high heels). I'm happy to be rocketed out of my smug Venetian languor and content to slow my pulse when they go.

     What is your passion? Venice indulges. Wallow in churches if you will. Visit the dead. Devote your energy to monuments, architecture, the moldering and the mysterious, to artisans of the classic and the schlock, to shopping or at least fantasizing. You can't possibly see it all. That's another point for Venice. So deprogram your compulsiveness and do what we do. Take a vaporetto to the end of the line and wander back. It's impossible to get lost, because some obliging Venetian will point the way -- "Dritto, dritto, straight ahead."

     Not that Venice isn't mean and elusive, indifferent, arrogant, proud, as if it were still a global power and not a shrinking village. I've always fallen for the impossible man. Of course I would have a crush on this most difficult, defiant lagoon and the maze of bound islands around it. So what if the restaurants blatantly favor family and charge invading infidels more? Take a Venetian pal to his favorite trattoria and you'll get the bill scrawled on a piece of the paper tablecloth with a discount. Though great restaurants are rare, expensive, often booked ahead, good eating abounds. Fabulous cichetti, the tapas-like snacks in wine bars, are everywhere, and there are glorious dishes that still haunt me. And the very same Venetians who despair over the alien summer and autumn crowds can be forgiving (and perhaps a bit bored) in winter, so you may be invited for pasta and bollito misto on the piano nobile of a historic palazzo. Even a social outcast can sign up with the elegant and gracious Fulvia Sesani for a cooking class that climaxes in her unique twelfth-century oval dining room.

     I like to think I'll never get enough of Venice. (After all, this magazine didn't name me the Insatiable Critic out of sheer whimsy.) And I don't care if I never see it and smell it in August or shoulder my way through the madding scene in September. Winter is the spring of Venice.

    Reprinted from New York October 19, 1998

Cafe Fiorello